Month: May 2012

Oaths: at best embarrassing and at worst offensive

Eamon de Valera
Renowned Irish expert on oaths.

When giving evidence in an Irish court or being sworn in as a juror, why is the default oath still religious? In fact, why is an oath required at all? Over 20 years ago, the Law Reform Commission recommended that oaths were not required and should be abolished but their report has largely been ignored.

Irish law generally requires that evidence be given viva voce (ie. live in court) and, according to Murdoch’s Legal Dictionary, the purpose of that requirement is “to ensure that such evidence is true by the provision of a moral or religious and legal sanction against deliberate untruth”. The oath used in Irish courts calls upon the Christian god to witness that evidence is true. As an alternative, a solemn affirmation can be used which doesn’t involve any religious element.

The Law Reform Commission, in its 1990 report on oaths and affirmations, describe the oath as “security for the truth”, the historical reasoning being that human self-interest creates a conflict in the mind of the witness, necessitating that evidence be supported “by the indispensable security of the fear of an avenging God.” But, as Mary Kotsonouris, in her memoirs of her time as a District Court judge, rightly notes:

[T]hose who tells lies without qualm are not going to be put off by the prospect of doing so with their hand on the Bible or the Koran. Ironically, it is the witnesses who ask to affirm rather than swear who show that they are the ones taking the idea of religion seriously.

The oath used in Ireland involves repeating the following while having a hand on a copy of the bible:

I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

A similar oath is used when juries are sworn in. The statutory law on oaths, which originates in the 1800s, provided for a procedure of inquiring into the faith of the witness and formulating an oath which would be appropriately binding on his or her conscience. The most common alternative to the oath is the affirmation:

I do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

But it is likely that the religious oath precedes the evidence given by the majority of witnesses in Ireland. Ireland is around 87% Roman Catholic and while no statistics on oaths are available, I would be surprised if 13% of witnesses opted for the affirmation.

There are many reasons why the oath is unsatisfactory and the Commission’s report concluded that many forms of oath are “at best embarrassing and at worst offensive”. The most significant objection is the risk that a juror might be prejudiced against a witness who affirms or who refuses to take the oath. This Commission report noted that this risk was identified by lawyers across many jurisdictions.

Aside from the people “who tell lies without qualm” referred to by Kotsonouris, what of the atheist who gives evidence on oath? Section 3 of the Oaths Act 1888 closes the loophole, at least in so far as terrestrial consequences are concerned: the fact that the witness does not have any religious belief or has beliefs contrary to the oath will not affect the validity of the oath.

The Commission report suggested that the oath is a formality to be “rattled off” and which has no special significance even for Christians; that “it has become a technical adjunct to the law of perjury, “more a genuflection performed out of habit than a ceremony sacred or significant to the law”.” A report of the New South Wales Law Reform Commission is quoted which suggests that the evolution of Christian beliefs in the modern era and the move away from belief in hell and damnation has meant that, even for devout Christians, the oath is deprived of much of its force. In addition, the swearing of an oath in judicial proceedings is contrary to the beliefs of some Christians on the basis of scripture.

The oath is, therefore, an empty formula. So what’s the point?

It would surely be more logical for the affirmation to be the default and, in the interests of efficiency if nothing else, only form of words used. After all, it should be sufficient that evidence given in a civil court be subject to civil law. One could go further and abolish oaths and affirmations entirely, something suggested by Kotsonouris.

The offence of perjury is lying to the court. While it may also be a sin, it is a crime. If, instead, a judge was obliged to tell all witnesses individually, including the police, of their obligation to tell the truth, to inform them of the penalties for perjury and to ask if they understood, it might take a little longer, but it might also put the fear of God – and of punishment – into some liars, while removing a cause of scandal to the pure heart.

The final recommendation by the Commission report was as follows:

Having reviewed all these factors, and in particular having regard to our conclusion that the oath offers little or no greater security for the truth than a statutory affirmation, the Commission considers that the potential prejudice to witnesses and jurors who choose to affirm, together with the great attraction of providing for a universal and simplified procedure which would place all persons on an equal footing, weighs in favour of the abolition of the oath generally.

This recommendation, that the oath be abolished and replaced by a modified affirmation, has never been implemented. For now, the oath is another aspect of public life in Ireland which remains theistic by default.

Thankfully, this can be changed by any reform-minded government. The oath required of a judge before taking office is, however, a different matter. Article 34 of the Constitution sets out the text of the declaration:

In the presence of Almighty God I, [judge’s name] , do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will duly and faithfully and to the best of my knowledge and power execute [my] office … without fear or favour, affection or ill will towards any man, and that I will uphold the Constitution and the laws. May God direct and sustain me.

This oath does not involve swearing on the bible and merely states that it is made “in the presence” of God, calling upon him to “direct and sustain” the judge. Nevertheless, many categories of citizen might reasonably object to taking such an oath. Article 34, however, provides that any judge who declines or neglects to take this specific oath “shall be deemed to have vacated his office.”

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More on court reporting of indecent material

In response to my post about sections 14 and 15 of the Censorship of Publications Act 1929, TJ McIntyre points out that it would be interesting to test the restriction on court reporting against the decision of the Supreme Court in Irish Times v. Ireland [1998] 1 IR 359. That case concerned balancing the constitutional right of the public to know what happens in courts against the right of an accused to a fair trial but the judgment is highly significant to court reporting generally.

In the Irish Times case, Hamilton CJ stated:

While the public nature of the administration of justice and the constitutional right of the wider public to be informed of what is taking place in courts established by the Constitution are matters of public importance these rights must in certain circumstances be subordinated to the interests of justice and the rights of an accused person which are guaranteed by the Constitution.

It is difficult to see what right could be asserted by someone defending section 14 of the 1929 Act against an Article 34 challenge, although Article 40 does say that the publication of indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law. The offence of blasphemy, also mentioned in Article 40, is contained in section 36 of the Defamation Act 2009 which the then Minsiter for Justice was at pains to stress had to be preserved due to a “constitutional obligation”. Given that the 2009 Act does not deal with publication of indecent matter, one could speculate that the Minister was perhaps aware of section 14 of the 1929 Act and of the opinion that it partially satisfied the constitutional obligation to provide for an offence of indecent publication. Arguably, if the then Minister’s reasoning is accepted, sections 14 and 15 of the 1929 Act must  be retained unless and until Article 40 is amended.

O’Flaherty J, also in the Irish Times case, was of the opinion that freedom of the press is guaranteed under Article 40 “and that the protection in the constitutional provision is not confined to mere expressions of convictions and opinions.” The Supreme Court does not appear to have considered the 1929 Act (despite considering a variety of other laws), but it is hard to see how section 14 be reconciled with O’Flaherty J’s comments.

The purpose of reporting restrictions and in camera rules relied on today are of a different nature than the one contained in section 14 of the 1929 Act. O’Flaherty J noted:

While [various] enactments authorise the exclusion of members of the public, the entitlement of bona fide representatives of the press to attend such trials is preserved. Where a trial involves offences of a sexual nature, while the press may attend, legislation requires that when they report, they must do so in a way that safeguards the anonymity of the parties.

He refers to section 20(3) of the Criminal Justice Act 1951 which allows a judge to exclude the public from criminal trials for offences which are, in the opinion of the court, of an indecent or obscene nature. This sounds like a legislative enactment of the practice referred to by Dr Keating in the Free State era, when judges might invite members of the public to leave a courtroom in the interests of “respect”.

One would have assumed that in a case where section 20(3) of the 1951 Act is invoked and members of the press remain they are free to make accurate reports on the proceedings once parties are not identified. It is hard to see the point in excluding members of the public in those circumstances, if they can subsequently read the indecent or obscene details in a newspaper. However, if a reporter is present in a case in which section 20(3) is invoked and the trial judge is of the opinion that the details of the case are indecent or obscene, it would seem logical that there would be stronger grounds for a prosecution under section 15 of the 1929 Act, but I’m not aware of this ever happening.

Does anyone know more about the 1929 Act?

Censorship in the 1920s, still on the books?

The Radio 1 History Show recently had an interesting segment on the prosecution of a Waterford newspaper editor.

In the new Irish Free State, low levels of sexual immorality and sexual crime were viewed as two indicators of this nation’s health. The reporting of sexual crime was to remain largely off limits to Irish journalists up to the 1940s and beyond.

A prosecution brought against a newspaper editor in 1929 did much to establish this status quo. The editor in question was D.C. Boyd of the Waterford Standard. He had reported explicit details of a case in which a local business man was accused of raping a 13 year old girl.

You can listen here to Myles Dungan’s interview with Dr Tony Keating, who gave a lecture on the topic in Waterford.

Dungan says that “reporting of sexual crime was to remain largely off limits to Irish journalists up to the 1940s and beyond.” I was curious to learn how far that “beyond” stretched and what became of the offence Boyd was prosecuted with.

Section 14(1) of the Censorship of Publications Act 1929 provides:

It shall not be lawful to print or publish or cause or procure to be printed or published in relation to any judicial proceedings:

(a) any indecent matter the publication of which would be calculated to injure public morals, or

(b) any indecent medical, surgical or physiological details the publication of which would be calculated to injure public morals.

Section 15 says that an offence is punishable by a fine of up to £500 and/or up to six months imprisonment (which could include hard labour). In light of current debates about ISP and website operator liability for online content, it is interesting to note that section 15 specifically provided that the liability for the offence extended to proprietors, editors, publishers and “master printers”.

So, when was it repealed? It wasn’t. Sections 14(1) and 15 remain on the books.

According to Keating, Boyd’s case was the first prosecution of this type and was described by the trial judge as being exactly the type of case the law was introduced to deal with. One can only hope that it remains in force due to oversight rather than principle.

Dr Keating says that the maximum fine of £500 in section 15 would, in today’s money, be £22,000 (I am assuming he was referring to sterling). The Fines Act 2010 means that the offence is now subject to a Class A fine, currently up to €5,000.

I’m not aware of any more recent prosecutions but in 1953 Joseph Blowick TD was asking the then Minister for Justice Gerald Boland whether he had submitted a newspaper report on the murder of a judge‘s daughter in Northern Ireland to the Attorney General with a view to having it prosecuted under section 15.

Surely the Minister will agree that the publication of the sordid details referred to in the particular paragraph should not go at least without protest from the Minister provided that he is not statutorily debarred from making a protest to the Censorship Board? In the interests of the clean journalism practised in this country, very laudably practised I must say, surely the Minister should not allow the publication of sordid details like these to pass.

The Minister informed Mr Blowick that his officials had considered the publication but did not believe it could have been calculated to injure public morals.

It is difficult to see how the prohibition on publication is compatible with the Constitution or the European Convention on Human Rights. Even if freedom of expression were not an issue, the prohibition itself refers to both “indecent matter” which would be defined quite differently today than in 1929. Another difficulty, as was the case with Mr Blowick’s complaint in 1953, would be in proving that the publication was “calculated to injure public morals”. It is a mystery how Mr Boyd was found to have done so in 1929.